Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to commute the death sentences of all Illinois death row inmates in January 2003 is well known to most Americans. What is not as well known, however, is the list of recommended changes submitted to Governor Ryan by the Commission he established to thoroughly examine the way the Illinois criminal justice system handles capital cases.
The Illinois Commission looked at all stages of the criminal justice system -- investigation, pre-trial matters, trials, and sentencing -- and provided Governor Ryan with a list of 82 specific recommendations.
As stated by Robert M. Sanger: "The recommendations, for the most part, neither hamper the conviction of the truly guilty nor place an undue burden on law enforcement, the courts, or the defense function. Some are simple, common sense measures. Others ultimately save resources by giving a greater assurance that things will be done right the first time." (Sanger Report)
Not surprisingly, the very first recommendation by the Commission deals with police tunnel vision: "After the suspect has been identified, the police should continue to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether these point towards or away from the suspect."
Of particular interest to the Scott Peterson case, Recommendation #2 requires the police to make a list of all evidence, including potentially exonerating evidence, and to provide that list in discovery. That would have been of tremendous help to the Peterson Defense team, who were forced to literally comb through 43,000 pages of discovery to find the exculpatory evidence, only to miss the most important piece of all, the 2-line Aponte tip.
Recommendation #16 requires continued training for all police officers working on homicides, including some areas of interest in the Peterson case: the dangers of tunnel vision or confirmatory bias, the risks of wrongful convictions in homicide cases, and police investigating and reporting of exculpatory evidence.
Recommendation #35 calls for Judges to be trained in these same areas, and Recommendation #45 calls for Defense Counsel and Prosecutors to be likewise trained.
The Commission made 7 recommendations on DNA and forensic testing, including Recommendation #20, which calls for the establishment of an independent crime lab operated by civilians, separate from any police agency or supervision. This is the only way to ensure that "results have been fairly and completely analyzed and honestly reported." The Commission stated that "Crime labs should function as an independent third force in the criminal justice system."
Recommendation #21 calls for sufficient funding for training of forensic scientists to support expansion of DNA testing and evaluation, and Recommendation #22 calls for standards for DNA testing.
Recommendations #23 and 24 call for establishing a federal DNA database, and allows for a Defendant to apply to the court for an order to obtain a search of the DNA database to identify others who may be guilty of the crime.
Recommendation #26 significantly levels the playing field for the defendant by requiring state funding for forensic testing on behalf of the defendant. This would have been especially helpful for Ronnie Kimble, to enable his Defense to challenge the State's arson experts that the fire could have burned in excess of 4 hours.
A couple of recommendations deal with training for judges, particularly in capital cases, but the most significant is Recommendation #34, which calls for Judges to be trained in managing the discovery process. Recommendation #47 calls for a Case Management conference to ensure judicial management of the discovery process.